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COUNCIL VOICE: Ward redistricting

COUNCIL VOICE • BY SETH GRIMES, Ward 1 councilmember COUNCIL VOICE • BY SETH GRIMES, Ward 1 councilmember

The City of Takoma Park redraws its ward boundaries every ten years, using decennial census population figures. The City Council appointed a Redistricting Task Force to run the numbers and propose new boundaries, subject to council-provided guidelines. (Thank you to the task-force members for their work!) The city followed the same process ten years ago although both then and in the current redistricting exercise, the council (which is accountable to the public) chose to adjust the final plan presented by the task force. The aim, ten years ago and this year, is to ensure voting rights while drawing wards that are compact, distribute diversity and use natural boundaries (such as Sligo Creek Park) where feasible, and close in overall population figures.

Not everyone is satisfied with the near-final product. I wrote the text that follows to respond to one person’s views, posted to a neighborhood e-mail list. My response — The City of Takoma Park redraws its ward boundaries every ten years, using decennial census population figures. The City Council appointed a Redistricting Task Force to run the numbers and propose new boundaries, subject to council-provided guidelines. (Thank you to the task-force members for their work!) The city followed the same process ten years ago although both then and in the current redistricting exercise, the council (which is accountable to the public) chose to adjust the final plan presented by the task force. The aim, ten years ago and this year, is to ensure voting rights while drawing wards that are compact, distribute diversity and use natural boundaries (such as Sligo Creek Park) where feasible, and close in overall population figures. Not everyone is satisfied with the near-final product. I wrote the text that follows to respond to one person’s views, posted to a neighborhood e-mail list. My response –

We had only 4 people (including you) testify at the [January 14, 2013 public] hearing, and no one has contacted me by phone or e-mail, or posted to a Ward 1 list, regarding the latest plan. [By contrast, there was much more concern expressed, at council meetings and by e-mail, in reaction to earlier, task-force created plans.] My conclusion is that of the folks who are aware of redistricting, the vast majority either feel the latest plan is acceptable or don’t think the district boundaries make much difference.

The latest plan does not change Ward 1 boundaries. [For those who care, I’ll explain a bit more –

While the latest plan increases the already-high proportion of African-Americans in Ward 5, it significantly evens the balance in Ward 4. It does this by moving Mississippi Avenue, which is geographically contiguous to the rest of Ward 4 but only barely geographically attached to Ward 5, into Ward 4. It is true that by moving Mississippi Avenue into Ward 4 and moving the last apartment building along Maple, south of Sligo Creek, into Ward 5, the latest plan adds apartment dwellers and subtracts house owners in Ward 5. This change actually gives renters a stronger voice in Ward 5!

I’ll add that I’m exploring whether the council can modify the city’s landlord-tenant code to require landlords to distribute voter registration and electoral information packets to new tenants. I don’t believe we can make voter registration, of new lease signers, automatic but we can take steps that should boost electoral participation of tenants.

What’s essential is that residents, whatever their wards, whether renters or homeowners, have able council representation. When there was resident testimony about earlier plans, most frequently it was to protest losing representation by a council member whom the residents trusted.

I heard from constituents complaining about one of the earlier plans, proposed by the task force, that would have moved them to another ward. One of the plans would have moved one block in the Hodges Heights neighborhood to another ward. The plans similarly split other neighborhoods (SS Carroll, South of Sligo, Ritchie Avenue, the area that includes Jefferson & Lincoln Avenues), and residents got upset. Many turned out at a council meeting to testify last year when those earlier plans were presented.

The Redistricting Task Force presented their process at council meetings last fall/winter. Their process included disinclination to split Census Blocks because they felt they could not get a reliable count if they were to split Blocks. Unfortunately, many of the Block boundaries run down the middle of streets. The council had explicitly asked that ward boundaries be drawn to avoid putting the facing sides of a street in different wards, and we felt confident that we could get accurate ward population counts even when we didn’t split the facing sides of a street. Further, early task-force plans didn’t account for a couple of apartment buildings that were vacant during the 2010 census. The latest plan does account for them.

Most recent proposed ward map, Feb. 2012.

Current ward map.

In conclusion, I think we’re in a good place with the redistricting plan currently before the council. The task-force plans were essential steps toward this latest, acceptable plan. Through the course of the redistricting process, the various plans were made publicly accessible, the task force presented its method, public comment was received and heard, and the council conducted its discussions in open, public sessions that were aired on city TV. We have had a fair redistricting process that is headed toward what I believe to be a fair conclusion. The final step is a two-reading vote of a redistricting ordinance, that is, at two council meetings. Public testimony is invited, and also you may submit your comments to your council representative or the city clerk.

- - Seth Grimes, Ward 1 Councilmember
[reprinted from the councilmember's blog]
Editor’s Note: For more background on this issue, see Voice columns from June, 2012, when the committee presented the first set of recommendations, which the council rejected, and October, 2012 when the revised recommendations were made.
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